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His discontents aside, idleness was never an option for the man whose persona hinged on the pretense of laziness — who walked, talked, sang, and acted as if tranquillity represented moral certainty, the virtue of the unflappable. He was about to do his bit in ways he could scarcely imagine, mirroring and defining the times more astutely than he and all but a few men and women had ever done.
But first there would be an intermezzo of restless muddle as he tried to figure how an aging crooner might continue any kind of meaningful career at all. They served as comfort music, a balm, a melancholy medicine for melancholy. Only Crosby could administer them in that vein, re-establishing them as the core of abiding values. In the s, his voice did double duty between candidly swinging jazz and the counterpoint of plangent ballads. He was the bard of longing, broken connections, love that almost was or might have been ….
Jack Kapp heard in Bing's performance the mood of the multitudes. However much the public loved swing, it had another yearning that needed attention. The great novelist and critic Albert Murray wrote at length about blues music being a means of keeping the blues at bay. That's what Kapp understood and what Crosby could convey, the sadness that undermines sadness. To give sorrow words, they reached back to Stephen Foster, that master of lamentation….
The astute critic Otis Ferguson of the New Republic wrote, "There is always something lovely and arresting to the heart about a plain song, when it comes unannounced from some place or time where people lived and worked by it. The book progresses from this point much in line with the following quotation from Bing:. I can't help singing. My preference is radio first, then screen, and stage if I must. Thematically, Gary explains it this way:. Radio was in his blood, and by he incarnated the very heart of American broadcasting. He helped define the medium and remained loyal to it long after his peers left for television.
Radio had inaugurated the Bing persona when he aired locally in Los Angeles and refined it when he went national in New York. Bing changed the attitude and bearing of radio from oracular to cracker-barrel, lampooning its highfalutin mid-Atlantic pretensions with his singular version of the everyman vernacular.
Going My Way: Bing Crosby and American Culture by Ruth Prigozy
In the s, he had emphasized his paternal English heritage on film and in his private life. He now undertook a rebranding that would define his life, career, and legacy to a degree he could not have foreseen in It was a decision of profound importance to him, an autonomous act of solidarity, his first public embrace of his mother's Catholicism. He softened the self-conscious artistry that had defined his ballads, muting the baroque elements of his technique — the tremolos, rhythmic fillips, shifting dynamics.
His upper mordents continued to peg notes for emphasis, but he trusted the splendor of his instrument to convey the tale, replacing ardent mannerisms of youth with a matured clarity. This reinforced the illusion that singing was easy, nice work if you could get it — virile, natural, and honest. They learned to harmonize their emotions with those of their parents, who, whether stonily remote or intrusively concerned, almost always demanded obedience.
They imposed what seemed like an endless litany of rules on everything — deportment, table manners, weight, schoolwork, curfews — and employed penalties to enforce them. Bing framed his idea of child-rearing in line with his admitted inability to openly display love and other raw feelings, which, even in his most expressive singing and acting, he fanned at low flame. Measured and sure, steady as you go; that was part of his appeal.
His songs of loss were ripened by restraint. His comedic chops fed on it, evoking the wary ballet of a silent-era comedian thrust into a shape-shilling reality he will equitably master. As paterfamilias, he had scant patience for the kind of willful independence that worked well enough for him when he was growing up.
Bing could not know it then, but nothing would suit his theatrical bent better than a clerical collar, a protective talisman holding him aloft. As priest, he would be everyone's ideal father: mellow and wise, immune to temptation, dispensing Old Testament regulations with New testament liberality. And in another description of the motivation behind the-family- that-spanks- together-stays-together approach, Gary adds:.
In the lexicon of postwar psychology, he might have been called a behaviorist. He surely had a mission. But as he makes clear in his memoir Call Me Lucky , proudly recounting his inflexible parenting, he considered himself a traditionalist, whacking compliance into his boys as the priests at Gonzaga and his mother had whacked it into him his father had no heart for it. He took the job seriously, enforcing rules, inspecting homework, and allocating privileges. Thanks to the arrival in of Buddy DeSylva as the new head of production at Paramount Pictures, Bing is cast in the movie Birth of the Blues which allows him to return to his Rhythm Boy Jazz roots, a theme which Gary elaborates upon a some length in the following excerpts:.
The script favors the terms blues and darkle music, which — though the latter was abhorrent by —have a certain historical validity. The movie, though racist in its very concept, counters racism by emphasizing the theme that American vernacular music — specifically swing as popularized by whites — has its foundation in black music.
This idea, commonplace in Europe and accepted by jazz aficionados, represented a step forward for Hollywood, where blacks were usually depicted as maids, porters, and fools, and for the United States, where jazz was lauded, if at all, as the music that whites George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman refined from unlettered Negro folk music. As was the case with the first volume of his biography of Bing, Gary continues to introduce themes that focus specifically on various approaches that Bing employs to render a song.
A warm-up take affords his audiences a glimpse into his procedural method. Jack Kapp preserved an unusual number of rejected takes from the sessions. These alternates hold little interest except for the one-minute rundown of The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi in which Bing is backed by Trotter's piano and Botkin's guilar. He voices each pitch squarely at a fast tempo and utterly devoid of feeling. Bing is rehearsing, testing the intervals. And then, with Trotter's orchestra behind him, he comes fully alive, transforming the tatty tavern paean into something very like an art song.
Bing would also work with Fred in the film Blue Skies in He cheered Astaire's willingness to stand up and fight for an interpretation of a song, scene, or dance number. Fred will do that. The Crosby glow is emphasized by [Mark] Sandrich's staging, which places him between the silently roaring fire and a huge Christmas tree.
The plot of Holiday Inn calls for him and the other major characters to be brazenly devious, yet Crosby's conman routine as evident in recent pictures - superficial, matched by an almost adolescent self-regard — is gone. In this film and especially in this scene, he personifies a hearth to which anyone might long to return. Levity had its place, dampening fear. And entertainers had a calling: to establish a cozy unified home front, stirring up a lather that was part propaganda, part pep talk, part escapist reassurance, all scored to thumping can-do rhythms, sentimental values, and the nearly pious belief sanctioned by the Production Code in the warranties of melodrama: Johnny would be marching home in triumph to his faithful gal and proud folks.
In December , the top age for the draft would be lowered from forty-five to thirty-eight, but before that, whether he signed in thirty-nine his real age or thirty-eight his professional age ,he was eligible. Not that there was a chance of his being called; married with four small boys and color-blind. Bing had always been a remarkable fella to me, and I had always thought that everything he did was so relaxed and effortless.
Not so. At our opening show Here he had been to all appearances perfectly loose and relaxed, but not at all. He was giving everything he had in every note he sang, and the apparent effortlessness was a part of his very hard work. As Jean Stevens, a family friend described it:. Bing was always embarrassed by it.
When she drank, Jean said, she was hard on them, calling them names, something Bing also did, especially targeting Gary and his weight problem. Yet when Dixie was on a tear, he would try to compensate with as much warmth as he could summon. Like Gary, Jean never saw Bing drunk: "He was always in control. But he was a cold person, like my father, with no way to show his affection at all, never hugging the children for fear of spoiling them, no public displays of affection.
So Dixie—when she was sober—had to make up for that. She was demonstrative, loving and hugging. She was a mother, you know. No longer the friendly but remote personality bound up by technology, he now offered a sympathetic, unassuming presence, more older brother than paterfamilias despite the bald head and dangling pipe, he was not yet forty — interested and deliberate, unregimented and virtually unmarked by stardom.
These men stirred and inspired him. Bing was still young enough to share a pang of disconnection that troubled numberless civilian men who gawked at servicemen on recruitment lines and on trains, at bars and in stores, marching. So many uniforms, so many casualties — the papers ran daily lists, grouped according to where they fell in the theaters of war. They owed him nothing. He fell he owed them a great deal; as a citizen, of course, but also personally. A year ago he was in the grip of malaise, and these men had snapped him out of it. He found himself singing as in earlier days, with pleasure, for the fun of it, before the most appreciative audience in the world.
This theme is the major description of how Crosby went about his activities on behalf of the troops, both at home and abroad, during the war years: an unstinting and unsparing devotion to doing whatever it took to give them succor. And although Bing had many colleagues who had great success appearing with him to entertain the troops - notably vocalist Dinah Shore - no one came close to the special bond he shared in this regard with Bob Hope:.
Only one colleague — Bob Hope — handled this role as deftly as he, so like it or not, they were joined at the hip on- and offscreen. They didn't have to memorize lines or rehearse for golf tours, and the audiences inspired them, though they occasionally had to fend off spectators who ran across greens to demand autographs and avoid galleries of onlookers who crowded within the length of a club's swing. His performances for the armed forces allows Gary to brings forth a variation on his Bing as everyman theme:.
Had there ever been a star of such importance who wore his stardom, talent, fame, and wealth so lightly? On the worst days, her de facto keeper Georgie Hardwicke barred her friends from the house; on better days, Dixie made an effort and entertained. Her friends discussed her drinking and reclusiveness with a tact and compassion sorely lacking in her family members.
While the ever-loyal Kitty Sexton found Bing to be sympathetic, his parents mocked Dixie mercilessly, in private and in letters, offering him no consolation. They were embarrassed by her, offended. They continued to regard alcoholism as a moral failure. The first is apologetic but unrepentant: It had become an American show-business tradition, practiced by black as well as white performers, divorced by time from the early racial disparagement so that the stereotyped characters represented human rather than ethnic manners, on the order of commedia dell'arte.
The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories. The second is unforgiving: Racism abides in the grotesquerie, and anyone who doubts its malice is invited to imagine a comical theater made up of false-nosed Hebrews or mustachioed Italian organ-grinders or pigtailed, opium-addicted Chinamen or pugnaciously drunk Irishmen or miserly Scotchmen or grunting Indians or lazy Latinos or thieving Arabs or flighty women — all of which were quite familiar to minstrel and vaudeville audiences.
Blackface endured after the other travesties faded. Even after blackface faded, the stereotypes remained, as African American actors played happy maids, obsequious porters, and genial imbeciles well into mid century. If William Faulkner's fictional Colonel Sartoris "fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron," Hollywood gave that decree the imprimatur of cultural law. And where was Bing on the subject? After examining the devastating effects on musicians of the recording ban inflicted on them by union boss James C.
Bing's buildup of acquisitions eventually produced a spread of baronial splendor. Not the least of his reasons was the lure of a Western modality that he merely skirted in his adolescence as a reluctant farmhand. He was the boss now, yet in speaking of his years in Elko — summers with his kids, autumns with friends, winters with the halest and heartiest of his comrades — his recollections drifted between the appeal of anonymity and the work ethic of his hardscrabble youth, when he rose before the sun to deliver papers, caddy, clean up a flophouse, mow lawns, pick fruit.
The ranch would offset the hours filled in by nannies and grandparents …. Or as Gary tells the story:. You're going to play a hep priest. He achieves results, not with ponderous precepts, thunderous theology or frightening threats of Hellfire and damnation, but by making religion pleasant and attractive. And we parted on that note. Bing certainly understood how well the roles in these films would put him in artistic situations where he could make who he was - happen! He loved the character and the story, such as it was, and he wanted to work with Leo McCarey, who understood the Bing persona as well as anyone and who could channel it in a new direction.
O'Malley is the apotheosis of all the virtues of the Crosby persona with none of the defects.
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In past roles, he flouted authority; now he personifies it. When he had a second chance with his new family, he was very different with those kids, who speak of him proudly and lovingly. He realized he had made some terrible mistakes with the four boys — his strictness, his discipline, corporal punishment, absenteeism, and unreasonable expectations.
He tried to make it up to them, but after he married Kathryn Grant, he focused on his second family, taking it with him everywhere, drafting them as performers in his shows. I pull no punches depicting the darkness of his first marriage and some passages are excruciating to read, but there are nuances and complexities to be considered. Every unhappy family is its own tragedy. She clearly had alcohol issues, but she was alone all the time, raising four boys….
You see her at her best in Pocketful of Dreams , before the problems take their toll. In Swinging on a Star , she is drinking heavily at the start and it contributes to her early death. No one, not her friends, doctors, or Bing, knew how to help her. She continued to show moments of great charm and wit. Crosby was away for long spells, sometimes weeks and months, while she was confronted with raising growing boys that she did not know how to handle.
Much of their upbringing was delegated to housekeepers and governesses — some of whom were more brutal than Bing or Dixie. Gary tells about one of them who submerged the kids in a bathtub. Luckily, Dixie happened to walk in and kicked her out of the house. I try to tell a story as best I can understand it with the material at hand. The reader can decide if he or she wants to don black robes. I would hope not. It is quite true, as you say, that his war work was of immense importance, and it gave him the option of leaving a troubled house.
Dixie did not have that option. Her drinking and her reclusiveness were attempts to handle a difficult situation. But at times she rises above it and I treasure those little victories. Was this enough of a burden that may have influenced career choices? He turned down much more lucrative deals to go with other radio sponsors and recording companies. He insisted on making a couple of independent films, despite accurate warnings of doom from his lawyer and accountant.
He continued to breed and train horses and bet on them. He certainly became smarter about business as he got older, and he was always paid well, extravagantly compared to most film stars, but I do not think money was ever his primary interest. The big change in his financial situation was brought about after the war when he engaged a man named Basil Grillo to oversee his holdings and investments.
His royalties were pretty amazing. One of the most surprising figures in the book, to my mind, concerns the annual royalties at Decca, which inclines Jack Kapp to tear up his contract and, as Bing stands in silence, replaces it with a far more generous one. Remember that his career continued for half a century, and even after he fell out of favor, his records were fail-safe annuities. He was his accompanist, traveling companion, and confidante.
His wife Kitty was a devoted friend to Dixie and Bing and plays a significant role in Swinging on a Star. I doubt anyone ever got as close to Bing as Eddie. I think Bing felt partly responsible for his death, a great musician lost at the age of But Eddie had a problem with his voice, he was chronically hoarse.
Bing encouraged him to have a tonsillectomy, which went horribly wrong. At the funeral, Bing was mobbed, pews overturned. He was horrified. There are some terrific stories and asides buried there, which would have impeded the narrative, but were too good not to include. They get there at and Bing is waiting, reading a newspaper, anxious to start, because when the gig is done he has an appointment for 18 holes and is going to split no matter what.
Gary Crosby said that when the surgeon general went on TV and announced that smoking will kill you, Bing quit.
But the evidence, which includes blackouts and long binges, suggests that he had been. During the Depression he frequently drank himself into insensibility. Yet after he turned his life around, he was able to have a cocktail or two at a party or dinner and not get sidetracked or fall off the wagon. Incidents like that are rare after I think discipline informs his approach to singing and acting. James Cagney captured this beautifully when he describes a performance during the Victory Caravan, where the audience greets Crosby in thunderous rapture, and his performance kills, an impossible act to follow.
Artie Shaw once said that Bing was no more Bing than Bogart was Bogart, meaning they created their characters for public consumption. On the other hand, he hated people who gushed. If you came over to him and with the light of love in your eyes it made him nervous. I love the Barsas. Violet Barsa honored me with her trust, initially making the diary and other materials available piecemeal and ultimately photocopying it all.
There are two things about the Barsas that readers respond to with a kind of shock: first, that these young women are clearly stalking him, as though this was a mere eccentricity that fans did once upon a time, even to the examination of his hotel trash; and second, that he invites them up to his hotel room. Yet he is so above board, treating them like young adults with respect and a genuine interest in their lives.
He was not interested in them as fans. It turned out to be a lifelong association, and for me, as a biographer, that diary was a gift from heaven, an amateur surveillance with the ring of truth. There is one passage of them describing Bing waiting in the snow outside the Waldorf for a cab to take him to Grand Central. He has to wait for a while until he gets a cab and loads his luggage.
Then the sisters start running in the snow to the station, which is a few blocks from the Waldorf. But that image of him alone on the Twentieth Century, making that long, long journey back to L. The upper mordents flutter effortlessly, but the phrasing is mechanical and the repertory is maddening.
Sometimes, his voice is just burned out and you delight when he rests it for a few months and returns with his best burnished tones. You trust your research, you sift for facts, you refrain from glib speculation and mind-reading, you find that sheer persistence will open doors, and a single letter or memo can incline you to reexamine or dismiss a supposition. When I started on Crosby, I was inclined to believe a lot of the terrible things I had read about him.
My proposal focused on the idea of a performer who personifies warmth to his public but is cold to his intimates. I started to do interviews and people gave me a different sense of him. Nabokov spoke of inventing Europe, Russia, and America in his fiction. A biographer is confronted with the challenge of inventing a life through language, turning a timeline of facts into a narrative. Crosby was not a saint, and I never wanted to write about a saint. He was a good and valuable man and I enjoyed the time I spent with him. Except for his jazz recordings with Bix or Louis, I hardly knew Bing.
I had to be talked into doing Crosby, having rejected the project for years. But the more I looked into it the more I was attracted to the subject, which after all allowed me to write about music and film, my twin obsessions as a critic, and the more surprises I uncovered about him: his tolerance and racial liberality, his innovative use of technology, the hidden treasures in his filmography, the diversity of his radio work, the brilliance of his recordings, the admirable aspects of his obstinacy, his influence on the course of three networks, the tireless devotion of his work for the armed forces during the war, the modesty that allowed so much of his achievement to be forgotten, not least the remarkable tour in England and France.
I discuss blackface minstrelsy in the context of his film Dixie , a fictional but interesting portrait of Dam Emmett. Speaking of surprises, I knew that miscegenation laws lasted longer in the United States than in the Third Reich, but it had never occurred to me that blackface had a tremendous revival at the very moment we are battling dictatorships touting racial exceptionalism.
In the source notes, I offer a list of some 60 films that encouraged Americans to think of minstrelsy as an amusing instance of cultural heritage. In one issue of Life magazine, it ran an account of the bloody race riot in Detroit, where whites were attempting to keep blacks out of affordable housing, and its cheerful plug for Dixie , which captures minstrelsy at its most grotesque, and no one saw irony in the juxtaposition. Incredibly, the peak of minstrelsy came after the war, in when Jolson Sings Again was the number one picture at the box office, with Pinky , about a woman passing for white, in second place.
I wanted to explore the paradox of Crosby, who did much to advance the opportunities for black entertainers, hanging on to his affection for blacking-up, an affection that began in childhood when he saw Jolson perform in Spokane. I do have two other books under contract, and I need a break.
But the research is done, and if there is a demand, I expect to write a third and final volume on Bing Crosby. To most people, his legacy is that of a Christmas singer and as an unlikely partner for David Bowie. I would hope people go back and investigate some of his great films and recordings. I hope readers will enjoy and perhaps marvel at the unity that he embodied. We read ad nauseum of the Greatest Generation in accounts that too often separate the business of war from a home front defiled by racism, anti-Semitism, internment camps, nativism, riots, and a paranoia grinding along beneath the surface, waiting to emerge in the safety of peace.
What sore winners we were. How slowly, reluctantly we adapted our vaunted values to our own country. But there were moments of greatness, sacrifice, and inspiration. We recognize it in FDR as well as other statesmen, military figures, and countless heroes among the citizen soldiers.
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We are charier in recognizing the glorious achievements of citizen-entertainers. Bing Crosby crystallized what was best in us during some of the darkest years in our history. And as an artist, he has a lot to give us even now. Unless otherwise notes, all performances are Decca Records; the rest are from broadcasts :.
Of course the chapters about Crosby in wartime England and France —Der Bingle — fascinated me most, not least his extraordinary mixture of showbiz courage, universal charm and absolutely hard driven energy. So how would I sum it up in a phrase?
“The First Hip White Person”
Gary Giddins is a masterly biographer, a storyteller with a keen sense of exactly the right details. Swinging on a Star reads like a novel, and this volume is pure gold, if not platinum, spanning the key years in the life of this central figure in American culture. Bing comes alive in these pages, with a glorious cast to accompany him on his many roads to fame and fortune.
A dazzling and brilliant biography. And like its companion, it brims with music, movies, family drama, religion, love—and, now, war, when the master of jazz performed on a public stage to a country, and most particularly, an armed forces, in need of cheer. He has drilled deep into a complex, deeply flawed and extraordinarily talented human being and has brought back not only this fascinating figure but the age that shaped him and which he in turn helped to shape.
Ken Burns, filmmaker, The Roosevelts and Vietnam. He raised the morale of all of America and was beloved by millions. Der Bingle was a marvel and so is Giddins. A fascinating interview about an entertainer who dominated Australian entertainment fro many years but never came to our country. Jerry, your blog is truly swinging! Marvelous interview! I read the first volume, Pocket Full Of Miracle, and loved it.
Thank you Mr. Please do the third volume. Crosby was all that Gary Giddins says even if his later reputation got tarnished. Thanks for a wonderful interview and for keeping JJM going all this time! All the best to you, John. Suddenly came a sound that i guess appealed to my ears alone. The culmination of all my listening? The difference btween bing and me is he really, really felt that.
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